Supreme Court protest
Credit: Josh Alvarez

The bitter cold did not stop congressional Democrats from holding what House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described as a “press event” in front of the Supreme Court Monday night to protest against President Trump’s executive order suspending immigration and refugee programs for seven predominantly Muslim countries, including indefinitely banning refugees from Syria. At one point, it did seem like all 236 Democratic lawmakers were present, in addition to the perpetually grim-faced Independent Bernie Sanders, but they were outnumbered by the 1,500 or so (by my approximation) protestors who showed up with signs and good cheer.

A speaking order was pre-arranged—the big dogs like Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, John Lewis, and a few others—and a large half-circle of cameras was trained on a podium with a microphone and loudspeakers. The Democrats emerged from the Capitol, across the street, holding small electric candles. At the very front was the towering figure of Rep. Joe Crowley bellowing the first stanza of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” over and over again with tepid backup singing from his colleagues, who appeared to have been taken by surprise by the cold. The column of well-coifed politicians and aides, who were busily tapping at their phones while chatting amongst themselves like parents supervising a field trip, plunged into the crowd and carved a congested path towards the podium and cameras. Sen. Schumer made his way through the crowd saying, “Hiya, folks. Thanks for coming. Hiya, folks…” Senator Tim Kaine, the former vice presidential nominee, didn’t appear to be wearing a coat but, chipper as ever, remarked, “The crowd’s helping with the warmth.”

The past weekend had been a bundle of horrors, and the crowd was anticipatory. First came Friday’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement from the president that failed to mention Jews and antisemitism, which one historian characterized (weirdly albeit accurately) as “softcore” Holocaust denial, but that the Washington Post chose to describe as merely an “oversight.” Every halfwit with a soul knew Steve Bannon had something to do with it. The White House is now trying to convince us that it was Boris Epshteyn who wrote it, emphasizing that he’s Jewish and a descendant of Holocaust survivors, which, even if he wrote it, belongs in the “but my friend is black” category of red herring arguments. Only a few hours later, as some of us were re-absorbing the moral stain of the St. Louis, came Trump’s executive order, which has since been labelled, somewhat hyperbolically, as the “Muslim ban.” Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, and self-described supporter of George W. Bush’s far-reaching national security measures, perhaps described it best:

The malevolence of President Trump’s Executive Order on visas and refugees is mitigated chiefly—and perhaps only—by the astonishing incompetence of its drafting and construction.

Multiple news outlets revealed that not one federal agency, or even a competent lawyer, was consulted or even briefed. A later story revealed that senior staffers of the House Judiciary Committee secretly helped write the draft without notifying any congressmen, which is something akin to a mutiny. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services were quickly briefed as the president signed the order. What followed was chaos and disgrace. Stories poured in of families suddenly separated, of longtime legal residents detained and even handcuffed, like Nisrin Elamin, a current Stanford doctoral student, and of refugees who had already undergone months, years, of rigorous applications being reduced to utter despondency. These stories were part of a larger full-blown constitutional crisis. As Ms. Elamin’s story makes obvious, officers in the airports basically made up policy as they went. While some remained calm and courteous, others took it upon themselves to interpret the order as aggressively as possible. Federal court orders went unheeded by federal officers. Baffled congressmen were barred entry. For several hours a federal agency went rogue, and there was no rule of law in America’s international airports.

Add to all that yet another noxious dollop of Republican servility and cynicism and Trumpian self-congratulation and that’s how you get close to 2,000 people standing out in the cold, yearning for rhetorical blood to be spilt.

But catharsis was not forthcoming because the loudspeakers weren’t working. Only a thin layer of the crowd was within earshot of the podium. The silencing of the Democrats was a cruel irony. With only 192 votes in the House and forty-six in the Senate, the Democratic Party is a weak minority in Congress. They cannot pass legislation overriding Trump’s executive actions; Republicans didn’t even let legislation come to a debate. They don’t have enough votes to prevent Senate Republicans from exercising the so-called “nuclear option” that would prevent Democrats from filibustering the confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. The beautiful backdrop only served to remind the political sophisticates in the crowd of this. All the Democrats are left with are protracted legal battles in the courts and their voices, which couldn’t project past last night’s arctic wind.

Unable to figure the problem out, the speakers pressed ahead. The rest of the crowd realized it wouldn’t be hearing anything. Clashing chants rippled around. The last speaker finished and the congressional caravan departed, but the crowd still had unused energy. A few dozen broke away and faced the Capitol chanting “Hey Paul Ryan what’s the time? Time for you to go grow a spine!” Motorcycle cops rolled back and forth on the street in an effort to corral protestors off the street and onto the sidewalks, but whenever the last motorcycle would pass a couple dozen protestors would run across or dance around on the street. After a few rounds of this, the police finally parked their bikes on the curb. One protestor yelled out, “You’re the only traffic!” which  drew more laughs than it probably otherwise would’ve. With that final, still unsatisfying emission, the people retired, some being careful not to roll up their posters for the next time.

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Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at